The rousing reception given to the splendid veteran Hello Bud, the winner of his second Becher Chase at the age of 14, notwithstanding, the most significant sound at Aintree yesterday was probably sighs of relief. The first two races run over the track's signature obstacles – the Becher and the Grand Sefton Chases – since April's ill-starred Grand National passed off without any more than routine incident.
After Synchronised and According To Pete suffered fatal injuries in separate freak accidents in the National, the course underwent several modifications, including softening the core of some fences and further levelling of landing areas. Of course, a couple of relatively small fields competing round one circuit in heavy ground bears little relationship to the cavalry charge of the National, and the real test will come in the spring, when eyes focus once again on the world's most famous steeplechase.
The consensus, though, was that the latest tinkering with the jumps was a success. "They rode great and are well-presented," said senior rider Robert Thornton, who finished third on Tranquil Sea in the Grand Sefton. Seven horses fell or lost their riders in the two chases but happily all were safely tucked up in their boxes last night.
And there could hardly have been a more serendipitous advertisement for the thrill of Aintree's unique challenge than yesterday's results. Two races after Hello Bud rolled back the years around his favourite course, his stablemate Little Josh took the Grand Sefton and in the process put trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies into the record books as the first to saddle winners of all five races run over the National fences: the National itself, the Topham, Foxhunters, Becher and Grand Sefton Chases. "Just incredible," he said. "But Aintree is what the jumping game is all about."
Both yesterday's heroes were ridden by Twiston-Davies's 20-year-old son Sam, who had instigated a treble for the Naunton yard on hurdler Master Of The Sea and who particularly worships Hello Bud. In seven tries over the National fences, the gallant old gelding has now jumped round five times, including fifth and seventh places in the National as well as his two Becher Chase wins, this one coming two years after the first. "This horse is an absolute legend," said Twiston-Davies Jnr. "He just loves this place, jumps for fun and is a lot cleverer than me."
Hello Bud, as usual, blazed most of the trail, holding on by a neck at the line from the fast-finishing Join Together. "I just set him at a gallop that I thought he could maintain," added Twiston-Davies. "He just kept going and grinding, getting over the fences as economically as he could. The last half-furlong seemed to take forever and I could hear them coming at us. He was out on his head, but I cannot tell you just how big his heart is."
If age had its day at Aintree, youth shone brightly at Sandown, in the form of the breathtaking two-mile talent of Sprinter Sacre. Last season's best novice made a most glorious start to his senior campaign, barely coming out of third gear to take the Tingle Creek Chase by 15 lengths. The horse is now a 1-2 shot for the Queen Mother Champion Chase at the Cheltenham Festival, with the Victor Chandler Chase his only target before then.
Yesterday's Grade One contest had been billed as a showdown between the six-year-old, one of five winners on the day for Nicky Henderson, and his contemporary Sanctuaire, one of the rising stars from the Paul Nicholls yard, but seldom can a match have been so one-sided. As early as the second fence, the two big black geldings had drawn away, and Sanctuaire took an eight-length advantage down the back straight.
But before the home straight Sprinter Sacre, the 4-11 favourite, had cruised insolently and effortlessly up to and past his rival under Barry Geraghty, and after a showboating leap at the last cantered home in glorious isolation without appearing to break sweat.
Geraghty knows what a top-class two-mile chaser feels like, having previously won two Tingle Creeks on Moscow Flyer. "This is the closest I have felt to him and he could not be better," said Geraghty. "I have never felt a horse who travels and jumps with such absolute ease."Reuse content